Parents of youths who joined ISIS need more help, researchers say

A new Canadian study shows the toll it takes when a child goes to fight for a terrorist organization overseas
A general view over destroyed parts of al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood in south Damascus, Syria, 21 May 2018. According to reports, the Syrian army claims it has regained full control over Damascus' surrounding areas. State TV reports that the army cleared the area and the adjacent al-Yarmouk camp after killing large number of  ISIS fighters. (EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI)

The parents of a young American Muslim who left for Syria says that when they contacted law enforcement, the response was radio silence, so they took matters into their own hands. They took separate trips to Turkey in an effort to rescue their son, handing over thousands of dollars to men who claimed they could bring him back.

Their story is told in a new Canadian study, which sheds light on the devastating emotional toll suffered by those closest to Western youth who have left their home countries to join ISIS.

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The study by researchers Amarnath Amarasingam and Lorne Dawson encourages authorities to be more supportive to parents who contact them with the possibility that their child has become a foreign fighter.

They believe police, religious leaders, and social workers are missing opportunities to work with the families to convince the fighters to return home, and that the lack of communication creates a risk that parents will put themselves in danger out of desperation to bring their kids back.

“We told the FBI immediately, but no one came to help, so we found another way, and my husband got on a plane to Iraq,” Habiba, the mother of the American Muslim who left for Syria, told the researchers. She and her husband found stories online of men who rescue young people who join ISIS and decided to enlist their help.

"We told the FBI immediately, but no one came to help, so we found another way, and my husband got on a plane to Iraq."

Amarasingam and Dawson interviewed 43 parents, siblings and friends of 30 men and women who travelled to Syria and Iraq, in an effort to gain insights into the fighters themselves, as well how their actions impacted those closest to them.

Of the 27 men and 3 women the researchers interviewed, most were first or second-generation immigrants. Half had parents who are still married, while 30 percent had parents who are divorced or separated. Most didn’t appear to come from dysfunctional or neglectful families or from poor or stressful economic situations. Fifty-seven percent were born to Muslim families, while 43 percent were converts to Islam.

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Parents noticed their children changing — whether it was clothing, behaviour, attitudes or friends — before they left, but mostly saw the developments as positive or as typical of the teenage experience, said the study. In most cases, the foreign fighters were able to leave without their parents and anyone else intervening because they had little grasp of what was going on.

“He was more focused. He was helping his friends when they were in financial difficulties,” said one mother, describing how her son “Noah” changed after he converted to Islam. “He stopped drinking. He stopped smoking. So to us, those were good things that we really admired.”

The researchers found that almost three quarters of the fighters kept in touch with families and friends, and that while at first many parents argued with their kids, they soon opted to try and have more normal conversations in hopes that the communication would continue.

The researchers say religious leaders and youth workers could work more closely with families of foreign fighters because “these moments of contact between parents and their children provide important opportunities to plant seeds of doubt, encourage the children to return, or at least leave the zones of conflict for a safer place.”

In some instances, anti-Muslim discrimination was a trigger, pushing those already radicalizing to do so faster, as seen in some cases in Quebec.

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The researchers recommended that authorities be more emotionally and psychologically supportive to families.

Over the 100 men and women who have travelled to Iraq and Syria from Canada, about a third left from Quebec, while several others have been arrested for trying to leave. Many of those the researchers interviewed felt a sense of uneasiness in the province, especially after the Quebec Charter of Values was proposed in 2013 by Pauline Marois.

“At first, like everybody else, he didn’t see Islam as something important, later he started to find meaning in it, and slowly got radicalised,” said a friend of Imad Rafai, a man who left Quebec for Syria. “Then the Charter came to make everything worse. From that moment, we noticed a change in the way he was talking. All of them are the same. They felt humiliated here.”

“The passing of the Charter was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many young people whom we spoke to, it was the moment in which everything they were feeling and everything they suspected about wider Quebec society was confirmed,” said the report. “The friends of the young foreign fighters are careful to point out that it wasn’t just the Charter – they were thinking and feeling these things beforehand. But, the Charter made them believe that their rather fuzzy sense of marginalisation was in fact accurate, and — even more importantly — it wasn’t something that was going to change in their lifetime.”

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The researchers recommended that authorities be more emotionally and psychologically supportive to families who contact them about the possibility that their child has become a foreign fighter, since they’re usually hesitant to talk about this out of fear of the stigma of being the parent of a terrorist or that their child could be arrested. They also pointed to the need for more public education about the process of radicalization to violence, since in many cases, parents could sense that something was wrong but didn’t know what steps to take.

Soon after Habiba’s husband set off in search of their son, they realized they were being scammed. The man they hired to help them started demanding that they pay for things like his dental procedures, gifts for his kids, and brand named goods. Habiba’s husband eventually came back empty-handed, and refused to go back. The men insisted they try again, so Habiba went to Turkey herself. She paid them thousands of dollars, but nothing ever came of their promises, she told the researchers.

"After my son died, I was in my bed, I didn’t want to come out. My life is all about pills now."

Many parents who have ended up struggling with substance abuse issues, as well as depression in response to the news that their children had left or died overseas.

Last year, Habiba and her husband got a call from Syria from another fighter, who told her their son had become a martyr.

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“Everything has stopped. I wanted to kill myself at one point. After my son died, I was in my bed, I didn’t want to come out. My life is all about pills now,” she told the researchers, describing the emotional impact her son’s departure had on her. “It’s just anxiety pills, sleeping pills, headaches. All of these different pain pills.

“My husband is worse. He’s definitely worse than me. He doesn’t talk to anybody, none of his friends know his situation. He stopped talking to his sister here, and he is not talking to his father,” Habiba continued. “He comes home, he goes to the garage, and sits in there with a glass of wine or vodka and cries. A good cry for a solid 20 minutes.”

The authors wrote that spending time with friends and family of foreign fighters over the last several years was a “deeply educational” and “heartbreaking.”

“We often turn these individual stories into statistics and graphs and carry out analysis,” said the report. “However, it is important for researchers to sit with these stories and listen to parents and friends as they narrate the lives of young people too easily demonised and caricatured.”

Cover image: A general view over destroyed parts of al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood in south Damascus, Syria, 21 May 2018. State TV reports that the army cleared the area and the adjacent al-Yarmouk camp after killing large number of ISIS fighters. (EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI)